The good bacteria

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ose Clifford is eating lots of yogurt for her gastrointestinal health. Doctors diagnosed her as having helicobacter pylori bacteria, which is implicated as one of the major causes of gastric ulcers.

Along with prescription medication, she is trying to crowd out the bad bacteria with live and active cultures, or probiotics, which are found in yogurt, she says.

“Antibiotics kill good and bad bacteria,” says Ms. Clifford, who is a research nutritionist at MedStar Research Institute in Southeast. She is a registered and licensed dietitian. “Probiotics help restore the normal balance to the gastrointestinal tract.”

Many doctors say probiotics, or beneficial bacteria, can be used to improve digestion and overall health. The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” People can consume probiotics through dietary supplements, or foods, such as yogurt.

“There is a lot of bacteria on your skin, mouth and GI tract,” Ms. Clifford says. “It all plays a role in people’s health. It helps to keep the intestinal tract healthy. It acts like a barrier, to keep good things in and bad things out. It absorbs nutrients.”

Probiotics have been known to have anti-diarrheal effects, she says. Also, some women might take probiotics to help prevent and treat vaginal yeast infections.

Because probiotic strands are unstable, they are only present in a few foods, such as yogurt and kefir, a fermented milk drink. When the food products and dietary supplements are refrigerated, it helps to extend their shelf life, she says.

While probiotics are sold as dietary supplements, yogurt not only has probiotics, but also nutritional benefits, says Robert Garfield, senior vice president of the National Yogurt Association in McLean.

The yogurt with the biggest health benefits has a seal on the package stating: “live and active cultures,” he says.

“That means it has 100 million live and active cultures per gram at the time of production,” Mr. Garfield says.

Although all yogurts are made with standardized cultures, such as lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus, the yogurt with the most live and active cultures after production is marked with the organization’s seal, he says.

Additional cultures also can be added to the yogurt during production, he says. Many yogurts have strands of acidophilus, bifidus and casei.

When the seal is present, it also means that 38 days after production, another test takes place to measure the cultures in the product and see if they will grow, he says.

“At the end of shelf life, there can be no guarantee that there will be 100 million cultures in there,” Mr. Garfield says. “We recommend 10 million. Most testing shows there are at least 10 million at the end of shelf life.”

Although yogurt has nutritional benefits, sometimes specialized dietary supplements are a helpful route, says Jordan Rubin, founder and chief executive officer of Garden of Life, based in West Palm Beach, Fla. He is the author of “The Maker’s Diet” and a naturopathic practitioner.

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